Thursday, 7 February 2008

punctuation evolution

Like a skyscraper skeleton that goes up overnight--but doesn't get windows for another decade--languages evolve in fits and starts, according to a new study.

Anthropologist Tecumseh Fitch of the University of St. Andrews in Fife, U.K., calls the study "a beautiful example of the potential for cross-pollination between evolutionary biology and … linguistics." He says the work marks "the emergence of a new body of mathematics that applies to all evolutionary systems, whether the replicators are genes, words, or ideas."
Anytime I read a story like this, I am struck by two conflicting reactions:
  1. Cool!
  2. No kidding.
The "cool" part is because I'm a dork. As for "no kidding," is anyone really surprised that the same math used to describe one thing that changes over time is also useful for describing something else that changes over time?

Unfortunately, this is not a tidy analogy. Fitch explicitly compares words and genes, the 'replicators' in the system, but that is certainly not the only way to read the analogy. In some ways, it makes more sense to link words and organisms, so that punctuations, replication, and extinctions act on the right sort of entities (I often get the feeling that biologists themselves are occasionally unsure whether the word "population" refers to a collection of organisms of a collection of genes--or if there is a difference). At still another level, it would seem that words/species, fill niches within a language/ecology. In one sense, all of these models work; I can gain insights into language if I make an evolutionary analogy at any of these levels. In another sense, they simply encourage loose thinking about something that's already confused enough.

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